South Carolina had a plan on Jan. 5 and executed it.
The idea was simple: Vanderbilt didn’t have height, and the Gamecocks did. Feed the ball to centers Elem Ibiam and Alaina Coates and get out of the way.
It worked. Coates scored a career-high 24 points, and Ibiam added 11 as the Gamecocks posted 42 points in the paint in a 76-66 victory against Vanderbilt. The inside play allowed USC’s guards to play strong defense on the SEC’s best backcourt tandem, Commodore senior guards Jasmine Lister and league-leading scorer Christina Foggie.
As Vanderbilt back on the schedule Sunday, what’s the plan? If it’s not broke, don’t fix it?
Not so fast.
The Commodores haven’t lost since. Tennessee and LSU each came to Nashville, site of Sunday’s game, and left with defeats. Foggie has upped her scoring average a full point, and Vanderbilt vaulted from 24th to 16th in the Top 25, remaining tied with USC for second place in the SEC.
The plan will be the same, but USC (17-2, 5-1 SEC) knows that it may not work as easily as it did in Columbia.
“We’re really just going to capitalize on getting it inside, because me and Elle are the tallest of basically everybody on the court, so we just have to make sure we take advantage of our height,” Coates said. “They’ve been playing a whole lot more physical, but it’s nothing that we can’t handle, that we haven’t seen before.”
The Gamecocks re-enter SEC play after their bye week (Vanderbilt also was off) in a solid position. Win Sunday, and their next four games are all against teams in the bottom five of the conference, three at home. The chance for the regular-season title glows, as USC could presumably be 10-1 going into the crucial five-game stretch to end the year.
Vanderbilt knows why it lost the last time and will try to deny Ibiam and Coates the ball.
“We have to somehow force it in there,” coach Dawn Staley said. “That’s where our advantage is, that’s where high-percentage basketball is for us. It’s worked for us all season long, it’s got to continue to do that.”
The Commodores have gotten more contributions from their role players to fuel their surge and rank third in the SEC in points per game. USC has struggled with defense this year and knows how important keeping Foggie and Lister in front will be.
To that end, the Gamecocks have a bit of an X-factor. Sophomore guard Khadijah Sessions didn’t play against Vanderbilt on Jan. 5 but will play Sunday. She might start as Staley continues to examine the point guard spot.
Tiffany Mitchell, the team’s leading scorer, started there against Alabama and played well, but it’s not her natural position. Mitchell supplied production, although she scored half of her season average, and it also put junior Olivia Gaines on the floor for better defense and a jump-shot threat.
Staley liked what Gaines brings defensively but was undecided on who she would start after practice Friday.
“We just want to make sure that the five that we put on the floor are the five that can work as a cohesive group and create an advantage for us,” Staley said.